Revolutionary and radical movements have been sweeping the world. The Arab spring, Occupy, action by students and youth, and strike waves have all ushered in a new era of resistance to dictatorship and austerity. In turn, this has sparked widespread debate on the nature of mass struggle today. HANNAH SELL reviews a contribution to this debate by Paul Mason.
PAUL MASON, ECONOMICS editor for BBC Newsnight, stands head and shoulders above most journalists. His reports from the frontlines of the Egyptian revolution and the mass strikes and demos in Greece have given hundreds of thousands of viewers enthralling snapshots of the consciousness and outlook of those participating in those historic events. His book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, is in a similar vein, smattered with interviews with participants in the mighty struggles of 2011. It therefore makes interesting reading for any socialist.
The author emphasises that the book is ‘journalism’ rather than social-science and that it makes "no claim to be a ‘theory of everything’". Nonetheless, it is an attempt to "explore the reasons why protest movements, revolutions, civil wars and internet-based revolts ‘kicked off’ in 2009-2011". This is done in an unstructured way, in a series of disparate, and sometimes contradictory, chapters. Mason says "the format of the book reflects the zeitgeist".
He sums this up as follows: "Many of the activists I’ve interviewed are hostile to the very idea of a unifying theory, a set of bullet-point demands, a guru or teleology… And for many, politics has become gestural: it is about refusing to engage with power on power’s terms; about action, not ideas; about the symbolic control of territory to create islands of utopia".
Unfortunately, it is not only the format but also the content of the book that reflects some of the weaknesses of this ‘zeitgeist’. Although Mason makes some points on the limitations of the ideas he describes, in general he is carried away by his enthusiasm for one strand of the recent revolts – that of radicalised youth, often unemployed graduates – and what he believes to be their new ideas.
For example, he concludes chapter eight by saying: "I cannot help believing that in the revolutions of 2011 we’ve begun to see the human archetypes that will shape the 21st century. They effortlessly multitask, they are ironic, androgynous sometimes, seemingly engrossed in their bubble of music - but they are sometimes prepared to sacrifice their lives and freedoms for the future".
While this may accurately describe some of the youth in the forefront of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions or the Greek revolts it is a rather facile generalisation, and totally excludes many of the most significant forces that have ‘kicked off’. The book features an interview, for example, with one of the ‘zabbaleen’ – people who earn a living collecting and sorting garbage – who had participated in the Egyptian revolution but who hardly fits Mason’s description. Most of the workers who led the strike wave in the days before Hosni Mubarak was toppled, and the majority of the Greek workers who have participated in 16 general strikes, are also excluded from this description.
More importantly, Mason’s ‘human archetypes’ will never succeed in shaping the world if their politics remain gestural and if they limit themselves to action not ideas. In fact, the ideas of many of the young people who have participated in the stormy events of the last two years are already developing beyond the zeitgeist that Mason describes, as a result of their experiences. Mason can see only a partial picture of consciousness now, and does not understand how it is beginning to change. Even since the book was written, the development of the Occupy movement – with slogans like ‘a society for the 99% not the 1%’ – shows how young activists are moving away from ‘action, not ideas’ and are starting to think through what kind of society is needed.
Graduates with no future
MASON PUTS GREAT store by "a new sociological type: the graduate with no future". There is no doubt that unemployed and underemployed graduates have grown dramatically in numbers in some countries, and that the inability of capitalism to provide a future for an entire generation has been a major factor in the revolutions that have taken place in North Africa and the Middle East, but also in movements like the ‘indignados’ in Spain, and the student movement in Britain.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that this section of society is the global motor force of social change, or that it has played the same role in all the revolutions and revolts that have taken place. Mason has a tendency to make sweeping generalisations, without drawing out the important differences between countries like Egypt and Tunisia, ruled for decades by brutal capitalist dictatorships, and Greece and Spain, which have been capitalist democracies, with all the limitations that entails, for over 30 years.
Mason believes that students and unemployed graduates played the key role in the struggles of recent years, comparing it to the theory of the 1960s (advocated, for example, by the SWP) that students could act as external ‘detonators’ of revolution. The experience of the 1960s disproved the detonator theory. In France in 1968, the magnificent revolutionary movement, including the greatest general strike in history, began with student protests. However, no amount of effort by German students, in the same year, to detonate revolution in their own country was able to move the working class. Only when society has created the objective conditions for revolution, over the whole proceeding period, and the existing order has become unendurable to the masses, is there any possibility of any group in society acting to trigger a revolution.
Mason argues that students and unemployed graduates are able to play this role today because they are now "thoroughly embedded both in the workforce and in low income communities". It is true that the number of graduates has increased worldwide. In both Tunisia and Egypt, however, the graduate youth who played a role in the revolution were not, in general, embedded in low income communities, but were from a relatively privileged strata of society. Around 30% of Egyptians go to university, far higher than in the past, but only half of those graduate. The number of graduates from a working-class background therefore remains small.
Nonetheless, the students and youth did play a heroic and very important role in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. In the first instance, it was largely the urban youth, including middle-class youth and even sons and daughters of sections of the ruling class, who took to the streets to demand democratic rights and the overthrow of the brutal, stifling Mubarak regime. However, it was not automatic that they would be joined by other sections of society. In Iran, the ‘green movement’ of 2009 did not succeed in large part because the working class, particularly organised workers, were not ‘detonated’ and did not decisively enter the struggle.
The Arab spring strikes
IN EGYPT, THE growing militancy of the working class had been demonstrated by a strike wave in the period before the revolution. As the revolution unfolded, workers entered the fray. The widespread strikes and factory occupations in the days before Mubarak’s overthrow was an important factor in forcing him to flee.
The tipping point came as the strike wave was combined with a strengthening of the movement occupying Tahrir Square – and the squares of all the cities of Egypt. Critically, this saw the Tahrir Square occupation beginning to move away from what Mason describes as the "symbolic control of territory" and to march towards the presidential palace, TV stations, defence ministries and other centres of the regime’s power.
Mason underplays the role of the organised working class. He describes the strike wave which developed in the days before Mubarak was overthrown, but only comments: "Egyptian activists are split over the significance of this late stage strike wave: some think it was a second-order effect to the mass unrest, others believe it was decisive in beginning to split the army - and thus forcing the SCAF to depose Mubarak".
It is a reflection of Mason’s tendency to underplay the role of the working class that he does not offer an opinion of his own on this crucial question, yet is happy to take a view on the important role played by social media, for example. He also suggests that Mubarak was overthrown because the generals "saw their moment". Clearly, there were divisions in the Egyptian regime, a classical sign of a revolutionary situation. But they were prepared to ditch Mubarak, primarily, because that was the only means to preserve their power in the face of a revolution.
These issues are of crucial importance because the revolutions in Egypt and the other countries of North Africa and the Middle East are an ongoing process. Capitalism is not capable of meeting the genuine aspirations of the people of Egypt, either for thoroughgoing democratic rights or for an end to poverty. Therefore, in order to succeed in winning their demands, a struggle to overthrow capitalism will be required. For this to succeed the working class has the key role to play, even in countries where it is a small numerical minority.
Mason implies that the working class today is less powerful than in the past. He writes: "The organised working class of the Fordist era was smashed". The level of organisation of the working class certainly has been pushed back in the last 30 years, but its fundamental strength remains intact. In Egypt, for example, the working class is a far stronger force today than it was in Russia when it led the 1917 revolution.
If they are to succeed, it is essential that the "graduates with no future" orient towards the working class. If, as Mason encourages them to do, this layer sees itself as the leading force in changing society, able to detonate struggles of the working class at will, the ultimate result will be the failure of the movement.
Mainstream media distortion
IT IS EVEN clearer in advanced capitalist countries such as Britain, where the working class makes up an overwhelming majority of society. In Britain in 2010, 36% of young people went to university. (This proportion is now starting to decrease as a result of attacks on education.) This is much higher than in the past, although it still means that only 20% of the poorest section of youth goes on to higher education. The magnificent student movement in the autumn of 2010 formed the opening shots of the struggle against the Con-Dem government. Unfortunately, however, despite the campaign conducted by the Socialist Party for a national trade union-led demonstration against all cuts at the time, the workers’ movement did not enter the field for another five months. When it did so, it gave a glimpse of its immense potential strength, with the massive demonstration on 26 March 2011, the 30 June strike and, above all, the two-million-strong 24-hour public-sector strike on 30 November.
That is not at all to suggest that youth movements have no role to play. In Greece in the summer of 2011, for example, it was the ‘movement of the enraged’, occupying the squares, which forced the trade union leaders to call a 48-hour general strike. Nonetheless, it was the 48-hour general strike which was decisive in finally forcing George Papandreou from office.
It becomes even clearer that Mason does not understand this when he describes the stormy events that took place in Britain in 2010 and 2011. In the chapter, Trust is Explosive, Britain’s Youth Rebel Against Austerity, only four paragraphs deal with the trade union demonstration on 26 March. Neither of the 30 June or 30 November public-sector strikes is mentioned at all (although the latter may have taken place after the book was completed). Ironically, Mason points out the unbalanced reporting of 26 March in capitalist media: "Half a million low-paid public servants had been eclipsed by the actions of 400 people: the news bulletins were dominated by images of masked kids, broken windows and a smouldering wicker horse in Oxford Circus".
It is true that, in the days following 26 March, the media coverage concentrated overwhelmingly on a few smashed windows and tried to play down the importance of the demo. A year on, however, it is the magnificent demonstration and not the Black Bloc’s tactics which are remembered. Yet Mason still falls into the trap which he rightly accuses the news bulletins of. He spends far more time discussing the Black Bloc and UK Uncut’s tactics than he does the demonstration. Even when he describes workers on the demo expressing anti-capitalist ideas he suggests that this is "a new mood created by the student movement and UK Uncut".
The trade union movement
THE ROLE OF combative, left-wing trade unions like the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) and the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) is not even mentioned. Yet the latter has run a major campaign, ‘There Is an Alternative’, highlighting the £120 billion of unpaid taxes by the rich and major corporations, which undoubtedly increased the number of demonstrators on 28 March who were saying, as Mason describes: "It’s the bankers, the profit system. The big companies should stop avoiding tax". Nor are the roles of the National Shop Stewards Network and local anti-cuts organisations mentioned, both of which had been organising local anti-cuts demos for months had demanded that the TUC call a national demonstration as a matter of urgency.
The erroneous idea that the smaller ‘direct actions’ of 2011 were key, as opposed to the mass mobilisation of the working class, is potentially dangerous, and is raised by others aside from Mason. Even some trade union leaders, anxious to abdicate responsibility for leading a mass struggle themselves, have over-emphasised the importance of UK Uncut, as compared to their own members’ strike action. Direct action can be very positive, but this depends on it being used to help develop and strengthen the mass movement, rather than as an attempt to substitute for it.
Mason also refers to the 26 March demo as an "old, hierarchical form of protest". To describe the trade unions as ‘hierarchical’, and the ‘new’ forms of protest, such as UK Uncut, as ‘horizontal’ is misleading. UK Uncut, for example, operates without structures on the basis that anyone who wants to can organise a UK Uncut protest and advertise it on their website. This has advantages, making it easy for people new to protest to organise such events. However, it also has limits, as there are no democratic structures through which collective decisions can be taken on the priorities of the campaign. This does not mean there are no leaders of UK Uncut. Inevitably, there are people who run the website, produce the leaflets, etc. But there is no democratic means by which to hold them to account.
The leadership of the TUC does not believe it is possible to effectively defend its members’ living conditions, never mind to fight for a better society. The attempt to accept a rotten deal on pensions at the end of 2011 demonstrated this clearly. Nonetheless, the trade union movement is the biggest democratic workers’ organisation in Britain, with more than six million workers in its ranks. Despite the major obstacles of trade union bureaucracy and right-wing leaderships, its democratic structures provide some means by which the rank and file can hold the leadership to account. Without activists putting on pressure via these structures 26 March and 30 November would not have taken place.
Not so spontaneous
EVEN WHEN HE deals with the very important student movement in Britain, Mason’s description of it is not accurate. He refers to the walkouts on 24 November 2010 as emerging from "a kind of makeshift anarchism". No mention is given to who organised the walkouts, so the impression is given that they happened spontaneously. In fact, it was Youth Fight for Jobs and Education (YFJE) which gave out tens of thousands of leaflets on the 50,000-strong official NUS demonstration on 10 November naming 24 November as ‘day X’, the day of the student walkout. This was then taken up by other youth and student organisations and, more importantly, by hundreds of thousands of students and school students. It reached well beyond those who had attended the 10 November demonstration, largely via Facebook. Day X was not spontaneous, nor did it start on social media, it was initiated by an organised youth group, which Mason might describe as hierarchical because it has an elected leadership, distributing leaflets on a demonstration.
Mason also gives the impression that it was students who triggered the clashes between the school students and the police in London: "Then [the demonstrators] surged down Whitehall, trashed an abandoned police van, covered it in graffiti, smoke-bombed it, attacked the police and danced. The iconic image of the day is the police van being protected by a cordon of schoolgirls who felt the violence had gone too far. The police, in response, repeatedly ‘kettled’ the protesters, and at one point charged at them on horseback".
In fact, the students and school students were taking part in an organised and legal march called by YFJE in a completely peaceful, if exuberant and very speedy, way. They were then kettled without any provocation. When I and others demanded to know why the police had kettled us, they replied that it was because they ‘expected there to be a breach of the peace’. By their actions – kettling young people for nine hours in the freezing cold – the police attempted to create a breach of the peace. Yet, despite all the provocation, there was incredibly little violence from the demonstrators. It was several demonstrations later, having suffered repeated police violence, that a minority of the young people on the protests attempted to vent their frustrations on the police.
During the great miners’ strike of 1984/85, BBC news reversed the film footage of the battle of Orgreave to give the impression that the miners had carried out a violent assault to which the police had been forced to respond, rather than vice versa. Mason’s sympathy with the student protests is not to be doubted. Nonetheless, his inaccurate reporting has a similar effect to the widespread vilification of the students for ‘violence’ in the capitalist media.
Exaggerating the role of social media
HOWEVER, IT IS on the role of social media that Mason is most one-sided. He goes so far as to suggest that social media could allow people to overcome the alienation that is intrinsic to capitalism. Mason writes that Karl Marx believed that, because "capitalism could only atomise, only alienate, he concluded that this ultimate ‘human emancipation’, in which people would express their freedom through communal interaction, could only happen after it was gone".
Indeed, Marx did explain that, as long as capitalism existed, so would alienation. He explained that in a capitalist society the working class is alienated from the work it does. Hours spent working every day is not done for the sake of creating something useful or beautiful, but to earn a wage in order to survive.
However, misunderstanding what Marx meant, Mason continues: "The actual history of organised labour was to be one long refutation of this theory. First, from the late 19th century, workers did develop highly sophisticated subcultures in which they attempted to develop civilised and communal lifestyles". In fact, Marx fully understood that, inevitably, the working class would develop collective organisations and the beginnings of a collective consciousness in the course of struggle. In a sense, this represents a foreshadowing of a new un-alienated, socialist society. In the Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote: "The real fruit of their [the workers’] battles lies not in the immediate result but in the ever-expanding union of the workers".
Interestingly, they went on to emphasise the way that the workers’ movement uses the most modern means of communication in order to develop its level of organisation and cohesion: "This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in touch with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians, thanks to railways, achieved in a few years".
This is the obvious point that Mason misses when he extols the capacity of social media to change society. There is no doubt that the participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are less ‘alienated’ than they were before the struggle. But this is due to starting to feel their collective power as a result of taking part in a revolution. They utilised the most modern methods in order to do so, just as workers 160 years ago made use of the railways, but this is not in itself what helped them start to overcome alienation. If they spent their time on Facebook playing Farmville it would not have had the same effect!
Also, the social media that is used by young people is not, in the main, a "semi-communal form of capitalism exemplified by open-source software and based on collaboration, management-free enterprise, profit-free projects, [and] open-access information", such as Mason describes. On the contrary, Facebook, twitter, etc, are powerful multinational corporations that are driven, like all capitalist companies, by the need to make a profit.
Nor did social media play as much of a central role in the revolutionary movements as Mason suggests. There were definite limitations. Many of the key participants did not have access to social media, which in Egypt, for example, is largely limited to middle-class youth. In addition, the widespread monitoring of social media by the state meant that activists understood that they could not organise or discuss seriously via that means and relied on organising through traditional underground methods. During the height of the revolution, the state shut down Facebook and twitter completely. Fully functional mobile services were not restored until after Mubarak was forced out. Social media was a useful tool, particularly when it came to advertising major events. It also played a role in showing the world what was taking place, especially via mobile-phone camera footage, but it did not alter the fundamental dynamics of the revolution.
Utopia… or socialist reality?
MASON ALSO SUGGESTS that people will use social media to create their own "islands of utopia" outside of mainstream society. The essence of this idea is not new, as Mason indicates when he describes the ideas of 19th-century utopian socialists, like Robert Owen, who set up ‘communist colonies’ run on a collective basis. Owen was a pioneer, to whom the socialist movement owes an enormous debt. However, even in Owen’s day, when capitalism was not dominated by a tiny number of monopolies in the way it is today, in the end his experiments proved that it is not possible to change society by setting a good example through ‘islands of socialism’.
The unemployed graduates who Mason believes played the key role in the revolutions have been radicalised by the failure of capitalism to provide them with a future. No amount of social media will overcome their desire for a decent job, wage and home. The only solution is to take power out of the hands of the capitalist class, removing its control of the economy and the state. To achieve this requires the working class to be organised in its own mass party which, mobilised around a socialist programme, could also win mass support from large sections of the middle class, urban poor and peasantry.
In passing, Mason rightly points out that, over the last two years, "youth all across Europe were rapidly disengaging from the political mainstream". He adds that "maybe it’s just a phase or maybe this is what democracy is going to look like". In fact, there are already indications that it is only going to be a phase. In Greece, the working class and youth have fought relentlessly – including 16 general strikes - against the vicious austerity of the troika (the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund) and the capitalist parties. Now they are drawing the conclusion that they also need to move onto the political plane. The so-called far-left parties (the ‘Communist’ Party, Syriza and Democratic Left) are on 41% in opinion polls. Similar processes will develop in other countries at a certain stage.
Early in his book, Mason suggests that the left, up until 2008, was disoriented and had no alternative to the capitalist system. Overall, this is true, but was never the case with the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International. We understood that capitalism remained a system in crisis to which democratic socialism was the only viable alternative, and that there would be opportunities to re-popularise socialist ideas among the mass of the population.
Since 2008, we have entered a global era of revolution and counter-revolution, which is eloquently described in Mason’s book. We recognised this and also predicted revolutionary developments in Egypt – contrary to the suggestion that ‘no-one saw it coming’. The task of winning support for a programme capable of overthrowing capitalism is increasingly urgent.
Mason writes: "For the traditional left, the info-revolution presents an additional problem: it loses its monopoly on critical narratives about capitalism". On the contrary, the enormously increased access to information that new technology has created is an opportunity for Marxists, making it far easier for a new generation to find Marxist ideas. Of course, there are also many other ideas on offer on the internet, but we are confident that our ideas will be those adopted, particularly on the basis of experience.
Mason’s pessimistic picture
THE FINAL STRAND of the book is the parallel that Mason draws with the revolutions of 1848. There are clearly valid comparisons to be made, but there are also enormous differences. The main reason that the revolutions of 1848 were followed by a long period without revolutionary movements was the strong economic growth of capitalism. The profound character of today’s capitalist crisis means that this is ruled out in the coming decades, yet Mason seems to think it is possible.
On the other side, however, he also paints an appallingly pessimistic picture of what a continuation of the economic crisis would mean: "Any repeat of the 1930s economically could provoke a culture war just as bitter as the one that turned Berlin from a tolerant, jazz-age metropolis into a racially pure Wagnerian wasteland in the space of five years - but this time on a global scale".
Global fascism is not posed in this period, but there is no doubt that the continuation of the economic crisis has already seen a rise of racism and nationalism. This is not the only trend however. The other side is the re-entry of the working class and poor onto the scene, fighting to change society. Mason describes the start of this process. Unfortunately, he seems to rule out the possibility of success in building a new democratic socialist order in which alienation could really be overcome.